A research team, led by Dr Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has developed a technique for turning chicken feathers into biodegradable thermoplastics, according to their study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

According to Yang, others have tried to develop thermoplastics from feathers, but so far none of them perform well when wet. "A lot of people have tried to use protein materials as the matrix material," he said. "They did not use chicken feathers but soya protein or plant proteins. The problem is the water stability. We believe we're the first to demonstrate that we can make chicken-feather-based thermoplastics stable in water, while still maintaining strong mechanical properties."

One of the driving ideas behind the research is to reduce the use of hydrocarbons in plastic production. "First of all, we wanted to make something that is totally degradable," said Yang. "Secondly, it's renewable. So you can have a bio-source of materials instead of using petrol-based materials. What we've tried to do is to turn the feathers themselves into thermoplastic, so it can also be used as the matrix material for composites, instead of using polyethylene or polypropylene."

The real-world possibilities of chicken feather plastics depend on the poultry industry becoming interested and investing in the process, said Yang, but a wide range of possible applications for the product exist. "Furniture construction, films, fibers or even fast-food containers, if people don't think of feathers when they get their food in it," he said.